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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Heir to the Glimmering World
(The Bear Boy)

Cynthia Ozick

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To purchase Heir to the Glimmering World

Title: Heir to the Glimmering World
Author: Cynthia Ozick
Genre: Novel
Written: 2004
Length: 310 pages
Availability: Heir to the Glimmering World - US
The Bear Boy - UK
Heir to the Glimmering World - Canada
Un monde vacillant - France
Der ferne Glanz der Welt - Deutschland
  • US title: Heir to the Glimmering World
  • UK title: The Bear Boy

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Our Assessment:

A- : an unusual Bildungsroman

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Boston Globe A 5/9/2004 Jessica Treadway
Chicago Sun-Times A 5/9/2004 Natalie Danford
Entertainment Weekly B 3/9/2004 Jennifer Reese
L'Express . 29/8/2005 André Clavel
The Globe and Mail . 4/9/2004 Annabel Lyon
The Guardian A 5/3/2005 Ali Smith
The Independent A 1/4/2005 Paul Bailey
London Rev. of Books A 19/5/2005 Theo Tait
Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel B 4/9/2004 Gordon Weaver
Le Monde . 26/8/2005 Raphaëlle Rérolle
The New Criterion . 11/2004 Max Watman
The New Republic . 18/10/2004 Ruth Franklin
New Statesman A- 4/4/2005 Natasha Tripney
NY Newsday A+ 29/8/2004 James Marcus
The NY Observer . 6/9/2004 Daniel Asa Rose
The NY Times . 3/9/2004 Richard Eder
The NY Times Book Rev. A 5/9/2004 John Leonard
The New Yorker . 20/9/2004 .
The Observer C 3/4/2005 Adam Mars-Jones
San Francisco Chronicle A- 5/9/2004 Sarah Coleman
The Spectator A 19/3/2005 John de Falbe
Sunday Telegraph . 13/3/2005 George Walden
Sunday Telegraph . 20/3/2005 Lewis Jones
Sunday Times . 13/3/2005 Peter Parker
The Times . 12/3/2005 Michèle Roberts
TLS . 11/3/2005 Tom Aitken
USA Today . 22/11/2004 Eve Ottenberg
The Washington Post . 26/9/2004 James Sallis

  From the Reviews:
  • "Heir to the Glimmering World is a tour de force of a vision and voice that reflect a compassionate intelligence we are most fortunate to have in our world, which inevitably glimmers when Ozick gets hold of it." - Jessica Treadway, Boston Globe

  • "Dear reader, it works. Heir to the Glimmering World is just as smart as Ozick's earlier books, but it's also funny and witty and engaging on a pure what-will-happen-next level. (...) There are several more layers of story and meaning and literary reference in Heir to the Glimmering World, and a literary theorist such as Ozick herself could probably spend a lifetime tweezing out meaning, but most readers will enjoy it as a satisfying, well-plotted novel -- one of life's old-fashioned pleasures, handily renewed." - Natalie Danford, Chicago Sun-Times

  • "While every strand of this hugely ambitious novel is strange and original, Ozick never quite manages to pull them all together." - Jennifer Reese, Entertainment Weekly

  • "Ce roman est un pur joyau, un théâtre d'ombres et de lumière où, de sa lanterne magique, elle éclaire un monde à la fois surnaturel et déchiré. Avec elle, nous avançons sous le signe de la grâce. André Clavel, L'Express" -

  • "Despite its 1930s setting, the novel's outsized characters have the flair of earlier centuries. (...) As in her earlier novels, Ozick is passionately concerned with the importance of texts, particularly obscure or lost texts, fragments and literary enigmas, and the way they irrevocably bend their readers' minds." - Annabel Lyon, The Globe and Mail

  • "The Bear Boy is sparky, mischievous, witty, dazzlingly clever, properly dimensional, and written with such calmness so close to the foulness of history as to seem somehow beyond the world, almost mercilessly self-assured. But like all the best fiction, while it knows that books are a necessary refuge, it doesn't once dodge the heresies and complexities of the real and it works, like all Ozick's fine, uncompromising and paradoxical oeuvre, to leave both books and world at once more properly mysterious and better understood." - Ali Smith, The Guardian

  • "Cynthia Ozick is one of the most consistently inventive novelists at work today, and The Bear Boy is as exciting and diverting as anything she has written." - Paul Bailey, The Independent

  • "Only Ozick would or could have written The Bear Boy. But it showcases her recurring obsessions (...) in an unprecedently elegant, moving and entertaining form. (...) The Bear Boy is not an intellectual high-wire act like The Puttermesser Papers, but it is certainly a novel of ideas." - Theo Tait, London Review of Books

  • "Finally, though Ozick's writing is always polished, and her ear for dialogue exact, no clear sense of theme emerges. (...) Cynthia Ozick is always worth a reader's time and effort, but it appears there is a bit less than meets the eye in her latest effort." - Gordon Weaver, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

  • "Sous les yeux du lecteur, Cynthia Ozick défait avec ardeur tous les remparts qui protègent habituellement contre la folie. Exactement comme si les secousses qui s'apprêtent à faire exploser l'Europe atteignaient d'abord ce morceau de nulle part, suspendu au-dessus du cataclysme. Semblable à un organisme vivant, le texte s'enroule en un tout volcanique, qui sécrète tour à tour un vocabulaire de la coupure (...), puis de l'atomisation (...) et enfin de l'informe." - Raphaëlle Rérolle, Le Monde

  • "Heir to the Glimmering World is a book about absence." - Max Watman, The New Criterion

  • "Heir to the Glimmering World offers itself as an antidote to literature as parasitism, and its arguments are, for the most part, convincing. All the book's strands tug in some way at the knot of sources and interpretations, primariness and secondariness, that constitutes both its substance and its form. (...) The delight of Ozick's intellectual puzzles cannot entirely compensate for the book's faults." - Ruth Franklin, The New Republic

  • "Her characters grab you in the opening pages and hold your attention throughout. (...) An intelligent and delightful writer, she has taken a familiar voice -- that of the plucky orphaned heroine -- and reinvented it in an original way." - Natasha Tripney, New Statesman

  • "Heir to the Glimmering World, delivers an almost Victorian quota of cliffhangers and complexities. Yet she is never, not even for the span of a single page, a meat-and-potatoes storyteller. What matters most are the elaborations, the aperçus, the second thoughts, all of them sublimely scribbled in the margins of her narrative. (...) (A) novel as scintillating as this one makes the world infinitely new, and it's the reader -- every writer's ultimate heir -- who walks away with the biggest fortune of all." - James Marcus, New York Newsday

  • "Even if I entertain certain reservations (her plot strikes me as oddly inert, while her exegesis of the Karaites -- an ancient Jewish sect of scriptural literalists -- would be better off in some other book, preferably not a novel), still I stand and bow before such royal imagery as the following, which describes a man who’s aged since last seen: "His curly hair was dusted all over … as if a peculiar rime had grown over him, or out of him, like a coating of flour." (...) Sentence for sentence, her sense of place crackles with imperial, almost gleeful power." - Daniel Asa Rose, The New York Observer

  • "Even for her main purpose, James doesn't really work. He is intended to stand for an American exceptionalism that once bore intimations of idealism and hope, perhaps, but latterly signifies mainly money and power. His emptiness, though, defeats Ms. Ozick's particular artistry. Hers is one that floats out from the heaviness of the human condition and lightens it, as it did in the Puttermesser novel and does here, with the Mitterwissers and their innocent chronicler, Rose. When it attempts to portray lightness, it forces itself." - Richard Eder, The New York Times

  • "Anything goes when she's making things up. (...) Heir to the Glimmering World is both a chambered nautilus and a haunted house -- a fairy tale with locked rooms, mad songs, secret books and stolen babies. And a children's story, an Oedipal grief, about killing fathers and moving on. And a sendup of Victorian novels that solve their problems with fortuitous marriage, sudden death, miraculous inheritance, emigration to Australia or all of the above." - John Leonard, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Ozick portrays this ramshackle household to dazzling effect" - The New Yorker

  • "(A) rather turgid affair (.....) Her main tactic, though, is to build situations up by sheer verbal intensity, by rhetoric. The trouble is that with all this pumping-up going on, with nothing to bring things down to earth, it falls to the reader to provide the mental pin for all the distended balloons" - Adam Mars-Jones, The Observer

  • "Phew. If this sounds like a lot for one novel -- well, it is. Any of these strands could make a novel on its own, and putting them together makes for a soup that's a bit too thick at times. (...) This makes for a rollicking story, but what gets lost is a certain sense of depth. Ozick is an intellectual magpie, and she squeezes so much into this novel that it's hard to tell which of her sparkly treasures should take precedence over the others." - Sarah Coleman, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Ozick’s turning of the tables is brilliant, and it owes as much to close attention as to breadth of vision. Each character is evoked with loving, pitiless detail in robust and gorgeous prose; each one is ridiculous and tragic, noble and petty. However extreme the emotional and moral shifts, the characters remain profoundly human. Besides being full of intellectual riches, The Bear Boy is witty and moving: I hope it achieves the success it deserves." - John de Falbe, The Spectator

  • "It is Cynthia Ozick's achievement that the atmosphere she builds in this claustrophobic environment makes her tale somehow compelling. The intelligence of the writing has much to do with it. Ozick deals in intellectual rather than emotional analysis." - George Walden, Sunday Telegraph

  • "It is a lively and compelling book, written with conspicuous beauty. It's also rather a puzzle. (...) But though I enjoyed much of the story, and was gripped by it, by the end I found it increasingly contrived and unsatisfying." - Lewis Jones, Sunday Telegraph

  • "Novels about crazy families run the risk of succumbing to mere wackiness, but Ozick maintains a tight grip on her characters, presenting them as genuinely damaged and disturbed rather than lovably eccentric. Indeed, there are similarities here with the work of Muriel Spark, a sort of authorial firmness that occasionally -- and enjoyably -- verges on the ruthless. Ozick’s prose is dense, allusive and idiosyncratic, lit up with extraordinarily precise images of the physical world." - Peter Parker, Sunday Times

  • "Ozick does not seem fully in charge of her turbulent and intractable material, but perhaps that demonstrates her greatness and integrity. Whose narrative can control the shattering events of the 20th century ?" - Michèle Roberts, The Times

  • "It would be wrong to give the impression that The Bear Boy is in any troublesome sense schematic. It is clearly planned and laid out, but it also allows its characters freedom to be perverse and surprising. (...) No passage in this book could be described as sentimental, but Cynthia Ozick has a warmth of concern for her charcters which carries us through their frustrations and despairs by arousing pity and wonder." - Tom Aitken, Times Literary Supplement

  • "One of the strengths of this new novel is its portrayal of minor characters." - Eve Ottenberg, USA Today

  • "Valéry said that a work of art should always teach us that we have not seen what we see. That is a part of what young Rose Meadows comes to know as she emerges from the Mitwissers' life into her own. Living as we all do among unwise folk, nonetheless she also has lived for a time, and lived vividly, in a wise, quietly magical book. As have we readers." - James Sallis, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Heir to the Glimmering World is a Bildungsroman and yet, despite the fact that is largely set in a household nominally headed by two academics and crammed full with esoteric books, there is little book-learning or, for the main character, intellectual pursuit. It is a novel that brings a European family to America -- "this deprived land -- 'dieses Land ohne Bildung' " -- in the 1930s, and thrusts Rose Meadows (who narrates the story) into their midst.
       Rose never had much family, her mother dying when she was an infant, her father -- who was never close to her -- now also dead, and her not-quite cousin Bertram, who had taken her in when she began to study at the Albany Teachers' College, eager to be rid of her as soon as there's a woman in his life. Still a teenager, Rose takes the first position she can find, an ill-defined one in the Mitwisser household that at least promises escape from Albany, as the family plans to settle in New York City.
       The novel is set in the mid-1930s, the Mitwissers early exiles from Germany. They've lost everything, a tenuous future promised only by the position the Quakers arranged for Professor Rudolf Mitwisser at the Hudson Valley Friends College: a specialist in the history of religion, he was to teach on a Christian sect called the Charismites. But even that was based on a misunderstanding: Mitwisser's specialty and passion, his obsession, is with the Karaites, a small Jewish sect who are strict (Hebrew) biblical literalists and do not accept Talmudic interpretation. (The Karaites, who number only several ten thousand, were categorised by the Nazis as non-Jews in 1939, and were thus not subject to the perverse policies that led to the mass murder of so many other groups.)
       A different opportunity arises, a benefactor volunteering to pay for Mitwisser's research and for his family to move closer to New York City, where the professor would have easier access to the materials he needs. It's an opportunity the professor can't pass up: all other ties are cut. Rose, similarly free, is willingly sucked along.
       The Mitwissers' should be an intellectual household. The father is a scholar, the mother, Elsa, was an academic and scientist, a colleague of Erwin Schrödinger (but without getting all due credit -- she's a Lise Meitner-figure). But only one of the children is set to follow them, the eldest daughter, Anneliese. Younger than Rose, she doesn't go to school once in America, but is taught by her father: she is the one person he wants to groom. Everyone seems to have given up on the three rambunctious boys. Their names Anglicised, normalised -- Heinrich becomes Hank, etc. -- they're allowed to be free spirits. Maleable toddler Waltraud remains the family mascot, fitting in with whatever changes come over the household. Yet there is also little integration with this new culture: the household, be it in Albany or then the Bronx, remains an isolated island.
       Mrs. Mitwisser most obviously can not adjust to the new circumstances: nothing of the scholar or scientist remains in the sleepy, clouded being Rose deals with. But it is not just her: scholarship fails here. In upstate New York at least the names of the cities suggested a classical environment, a trace of culture: Troy, Thrace, Carthage, Ithaca, Rome. The Bronx, and even the proximity to the great New York Public Library, are, finally, too far from their world. Mitwisser's research goes nowhere, Anneliese stops studying. (It will end, Rose realises, with Mitwisser's great library boxed up and stored away, books serving no purpose at all -- though by then she will have escaped.)
       For the longest time Rose doesn't even know why she's been hired. As nanny ? Secretary ? Her typing skills come in handy, but she never has a clearly defined job. Once Mitwisser introduces her as his amanuensis, but she is anything but. Far from blossoming intellectually in a scholarly environment, it seems she can only gather actual knowledge by stealth or accident:

She spoke often of Bildung, a term that eluded me. I had discovered Anneliese's German-English dictionary abandoned on a kitchen shelf, among the teacups. Sitting with Mrs. Mitwisser, I sometimes stealthily consulted it. But when I looked up "Bildung," I found only "education". For Mrs. Mitwisser it meant elaborately more. She would say of her grandfather (I learned that he had founded a chain of newspapers at the close of the century), "Er war ein sehr gebildeter Mann," and she said the same of Erwin Schrödinger. Eventually I understood that a man in possession of Bildung was more than merely cultivated: he was ideally purified by humanism, an aristocrat of sensibility and wisdom.
       It is not only the term Bildung that eludes Rose, it is the possibility of achieving it (in the sense Mrs. Mitwisser means it). With entropy the dominant force in the household, the story she tells is essentially an anti-Bildungs Roman, the Mitwissers stained and polluted by America, almost all traces of Old World purity eventually irretrievably lost.
       Ozick does not defend nostalgia, however -- or, fully, humanism. The book is set before the worst of the concentration camp excesses even began, but the reader can't help but be reminded of them, and that the supposedly gebildete Kultur in the Germany the Mitwissers left was responsible for what was to come. "Ideally purified" necessarily takes on other connotations, none pleasant, while sensibility and wisdom were used to the most horrible of ends. Escape from this, Ozick suggests, even at the high cost the Mitwissers pay (and they do), may be worthwhile, the American alternative ultimately something that can readily be embraced. It is also no coincidence that the literalist Jews, the Karaites, -- so very different from the scholarly Talmudic tradition -- are Professor Mitwisser's specialty -- and that it is they who would be spared under the Nazis. (The Karaites are something Mitwisser can study -- though ultimately also without success -- but he can never be one.)
       The Bildung Rose receives is of a very different sort than the usual academic one, though she does not truly become much wiser in any worldly sense either. But the stagnancy of the time she spends with the Mitwissers does equip her for a future. Heir to the Glimmering World is, obliquely, a coming of age novel, though only once freed from this environment will Rose truly blossom: coming of age comes only with escape, in the unwritten postscript. (Rose writes her account from a considerable distance from events, without ever giving much of her present circumstances away; nevertheless, there is a strong sense of the inevitability to her finding her way after she has left the Mitwissers, the closing scene of the novel.)
       The glimmering of the world of the title is rarely seen. The word itself crops up only once; literature is kept at bay in the Mitwissers exile-world -- little reading, especially of novels and the like, is done here -- but Rose comes to read to Mrs. Mitwisser Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility:
     Mrs. Mitwisser understood all this very well; it glimmered with unfamiliar familiarity; none of it was beyond her comprehension. She understood it pleasurably
       But literature isn't enough to counter the other forces in the Mitwisser household, and Rose is the only one who understands its power and potential. Sense and Sensibility briefly seduces and soothes Mrs. Mitwisser, but the pages of the book predictably wind up torn to bits: there's no place for such glimmering in the Mitwisser home.
       The other great pole in the novel is the Mitwisser 's benefactor, James. Unseen at first, he eventually joins the household, and his story is also slowly revealed. He, too, is parentless, and driven by a hatred for his dead father who burdened him with an existence he knows not how to handle. The burden is also a blessing, however: James' father also left him an enormous amount of money, allowing him to do whatever he wants.
       A book also figures prominently in James' life -- and makes for a surprising connexion to Rose. The book, however, is also barely a literary text, not something to read: it is a childhood memory (hated, loved, depending on who one asks), and now a totem.
       Mrs. Mitwisser literally can't bear what James has done. His generosity, and the influence that comes with it, drive her to near-madness. She can not accept him in her family, sensing that he is the true Karaite, and that the family can not bear his presence. Ultimately, she is proved right.
       Rose, too, is not entirely alone; a tenuous link remains to Bertram, who once took her in. He fell in love with a Communist, Ninel, but couldn't hold onto her: he was devoted to her, but she cared only for her cause -- yet another doomed idealist. She's the cause of Bertram's fall, as well. In his desperation he eventually has nowhere else to turn but to Rose, yet he ultimately proves far more adaptable (and far more capable of shaping others to his ends) than Rose. (Superficially, Rose fits in with the Mitwissers: she is, like their unusual family name suggests, a Mitläufer, a fellow traveller -- or at least a tag-along -- in this other-worldly world, or at least that's what she's willing to play at for the time being, as she tries to get her bearings. Rose and the Mitwissers are all -- as the literal translation of their name would have it -- co-knowers (and stuck fast in that knowledge), unalike but willing to share this odd, unambitious life. Bertram is no intellectual, but he does understand what's called for; an agreeable Besserwisser, he easily assumes the upper hand.)

       Ozick conveys Rose's situation well, a tour de force of a tone which is difficult to strike and sustain. Rose is a girl on the cusp of adulthood, coming to terms with her unsympathetic father's death and her own place in the world. She is unable to settle entirely into the Mitwissers' agitated world but it at least offers an opportunity for her to get her bearings (hard as it is to orient oneself in that near-chaos). The novel is all on that cusp: true growth and maturity are enabled by what she experiences, but will only be possible afterwards.
       "I'm not about anything", Rose says when she's asked what she's about, when any other young woman her age would have some ambition or even just a hobby. Rose remains, for practically the entire novel, adaptable and a void. She shows occasional incentive, taking over duties in the household when need be, and picks up some knowledge -- but Ozick is reluctant to even acknowledge her learning even the most basic things. When she does, it couldn't seem to be less:
     This was how, dimly, dimly, and little by little, I derived the nature of the Karaites at my typewriter at night, to the chanting of Mitwisser's esoteric recitations.
       Book-learning, even literary learning, are far from first and foremost. If they happen, it is almost incidental. Humanism hasn't died here, but traditional humanism proves either unattainable or of little use: the New World, new times, and Rose, becoming adult, demand a different course.

       Heir to the Glimmering World is an impressive achievement, a very different sort of coming of age novel and exile-story. The mix of optimism and stark and often dark realities is particularly striking. Some of the solutions -- Mrs. Mitwisser's madness, a pregnancy, a suicide -- might seem a bit simplistic, but Ozick handles them well enough. Heir to the Glimmering World is also surprisingly eventful: a lot happens.
       Rose is a convincing narrator, blind and accepting to some extent, but not naïve. She describes, unable to interpret much. She is amazed by the transformations (when James moves in, for example), but manages to adapt to any new circumstances with hardly a second thought. Rose is an odd duck, occasionally perhaps too self-effacing, but her strong (yet still convincing) voice make for a successful narrator. (Some chapters stray elsewhere, recounting James' story, for example, apart from Rose's experience; it's something of a departure, and jars a bit.)

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Heir to the Glimmering World: Reviews: Karaites: Cynthia Ozick: Other books by Cynthia Ozick under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary American fiction

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About the Author:

       American author Cynthia Ozick has written numerous works of fiction, as well as several collections of essays. She has been awarded a number of prizes and honors, and she has received a Guggenheim Fellowship.

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© 2004-2021 the complete review

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